By Jeff Woodburn
It had been 26 summers since I’ve felt the stingingly cold water of Upper Ammonoosuc Falls. This natural swimming hole sits at the foothills of Mount Washington. It is a place of beauty, danger and intrigue.
I returned to capture the mystique of this place that has drawn, dared and occasionally killed young people for generations.
As a middle-aged adult, who is also a teacher and writer; I was an unlikely sight with a camera, notepad and a pen surrounded by many of my former students. To understand the essence of this place, I needed to first align my childhood memories with reality.
I spent three days at the falls; I interviewed dozens of people and poured through many years of microfilmed old newspapers. I was struck by how much safer life is today for all people, but especially teenagers. The old newspapers were littered with stories of disaster—auto accidents, drowning, drug overdose and freak mishaps.
As the son of the local undertaker, I grew up feeling as invincible as most kids, but routinely witnessed the darker side of life. Jim Esdon, Program Manager with the Injury Prevention Center at Dartmouth, tells me that we “are 38 percent safer than 20 years ago.”
The falls and three swimming holes are difficult to put into any physical context. The setting is so overpowering it washed away my memory; like I saw it for the first time. I didn’t remember the waterfall that pours into a small pool, but I know from my research that this is the spot where the hydraulic forces pull swimmers down and holds them there. The lucky ones get spit out, the others drown.
I watched some of my former students make daring dives. As they climbed from the natural pools and onto the water sculpted rocks, I quizzed them. Words stuttered from their bluish, purple lips while their bodies shivered uncontrollably. In many ways, they were teaching me. I scribbled notes and listened intently. In another sense, I was testing their respect for nature and its powerful forces, as well as gauging their typical adolescent instincts for risky bravado. These boys, whom weeks before couldn’t go to the bathroom without a pass; impress me with their common sense and caution. As one of them said, “You have to know the water.” They know more than the water. I was proud of them.
Days and many inches of rain later, I return to Upper Falls. My story is finished and filed. I have come to see the dangerous swirls of the small pool, and I’m also nervous that my eldest son is here with some friends (with promises to stay clear of the falls). Steps from my truck, I hear a shout from a car with out-of-state plates. “Where’s Upper Falls?” the voice asks. A young man, sitting nearby drying off, ignores the question, and I answer: “Right here.” In an instant I realize, I should have said nothing, or sent them down to the safer lower falls (they wouldn’t have known the difference.) The kids pile out. They are heavily pierced and tattooed (not that that matters) and don’t strike me as outdoor types.
I move to the high rocks overlooking the falls and take several pictures; the roar of the crashing water keeps people away from the most treacherous swimming hole. I park myself there as a further deterrent. I’m ready to tell a story, but no one asks. Finally, a young man moves toward me to survey the frothing, swirling water below. “You don’t want to jump in there,” I say, “water is too high.” Minutes, later his nearby swimming companion swiftly moves by me and jumps in.
My warning, I assume, became a dare. I failed to follow the basics that I learned during my first few rocky months in the classroom. After trying to bulldoze my students with strict military-like rigidity, I changed gears and eased up. Eventually, I learned in the words of Willie Nelson that “holding on means letting go.” In time, I found peace and power knowing that I had little control, but enormous influence over my students. “The more we try to control,” advises Terry Lynn Humphrey, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with Granite State Child and Family Counseling in Milford, “the more they rebel.”
In an instant the young diver emerges from the turbulent water and climbs to safety, and I head home before I cause serious harm.